Practical Capitalism

Here's an excerpt from an essay by Eric Andrews that suggests how to adapt to a world characterized by overspending governments, boom and bust economies, deflation and inflation, greed, and shortages.

Link: oftwominds.com Readers Journal-Eric Andrews 12/29/08

Real, useful capitalism requires not a response to the belated price signal but visionary action. And since it is already too late to alter large, long-term issues at the Governmental level—say, mass transit, zero-energy homes, or building the transmission and generation capacity to support wind-fueled electric cars—the best any of us can do is to think ahead to make sure that we ourselves are insulated from unnecessary trouble. That is to say, if you want pickled herring on Friday, would you save in strawberry jam and hope to trade? So if you want a retirement that includes food, energy, and security, wouldn't it make more sense to invest directly in those things? The working of the price signal depends on somebody else thinking ahead and saving for you, anticipating what you may need and making it. But we already know those needs will not be met in the macro sense. So if you want them and want them reliably, shouldn't you buy them now while they're cheap? Things such as a low-energy/low money input house. Things such as ways to provide and produce your own food: a greenhouse, a mushroom log, a garden, a chicken coop. Perhaps become a marginal producer of energy with investment in wind, PV, or whatever other creative solution takes your fancy. As you will have far less to buy later, higher prices and shortages will have less effect on you while the yearly savings of non-buying accrue year after year. You thereby use your retirement savings far more wisely, with far more certainty and control.

The Challenges Not Mentioned in the Election

John Michael Greer describes some issues that are so controversial that candidates don't touch them. But they won't go away quietly and denial is not a viable option. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: History and Hope.

…the major issues of this moment in history were barely mentioned by any party, major or minor, in the presidential campaign. Over the next decade or so, the United States will have to work out a way to stand down from a global military-economic empire it can no longer afford to maintain; it will have to find the money and the means to replace a mostly fictive economy based on the manipulation of baroque financial instruments with a real economy based on the production of goods and services for people; it will have to make good on decades of malign neglect inflicted on the national infrastructure on nearly every level, even as it struggles to convert a suburban landcape viable only in an age of cheap abundant fossil fuels to something that makes sense in the world of scarce and expensive energy ahead of us.

Few of the changes that will be imposed by these necessities will be popular. Many, in fact, will be bitterly resented, and none of them will come cheaply. We have wasted so many opportunities and poured so many of our once-abundant resources into a decades-long joyride that the next few years will almost certainly impose one wrenching challenge after another on a society that the recent past has left very poorly equipped to face them. Our history is among the heaviest burdens we face, because the habits we learned during America’s imperial zenith are among the things that are most necessary to unlearn in the new and far more multipolar world dawning around us.

Still, I find myself feeling a bit more hopeful than before, for the burden of racial hatred was also profoundly rooted in American history and identity, and the verdict of last night’s election suggests that it has turned out to be subject to change. I think of the difference forty years has made, from 1968, when an assassin’s bullet cut down Martin Luther King and inner cities across America exploded in violence, to 2008, when a nation’s ballot sent Barack Obama to the presidency and many of those same inner cities celebrated straight through the night. We live in a different country now, and the possibility that Americans might be able to rise to the massive challenge of the deindustrial transition has become just slightly harder for me to dismiss out of hand. Still, that turn of history’s wheel is still ahead of us, and we will have to wait and see.

“Clean Coal” Poisons Water and Land Instead of Air

The Coastal Post Online describes the many dangers of using coal for energy. Excerpts below.

Building more coal fired plants for electricity will sacrifice the future health of our country. But there are powerful forces who profit now and they are investing in political influence.

Link: Coastal Post Online Article January, 2008.

Big Coal and its cohorts envision a "clean coal technology" future fueled by liquifying and gasifying coal, capturing the carbon emissions and injecting them underground.

But scientists and environmentalists say "clean coal" does not exist; it is a misnomer and an oxymoron. The National Resources Defense Council says that using the term "clean coal" makes about as much sense as saying "safe cigarettes." The extraction and cleaning of coal inevitably decimate ecosystems and communities.

Nationwide there are grandiose plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants, but they all hinge on being able to sell the public and legislators on outfitting and funding these new plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. This process siphons off or "captures" carbon dioxide before it can escape into the atmosphere, contributing to acid rain, smog and warming the planet. The sequestered carbon would then be pumped and stored underground.

But is it really possible to bury our daily CO2 emission? Australia’s renown physicist, Karl Kruszelnicki, who is running for public office on the Climate Change Coalition ticket, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 1, "One cubic kilometer of CO2 to get rid of every day? It’s not possible! But they don’t tell you that that’s what they’ve got to get rid of. They make reassuring noises that they’re spending millions looking for underground caverns. But I’m here to tell you that they’re not going to find it … The point is that they can only store 1,000th of 1 percent, not all their daily output."

Not only do we not have the capacity to store all the CO2 we produce, but the technology isn’t there yet. The coal industry acknowledges that CCS is 15 years away, but continues to promulgate the myth of "clean coal technology" and guide generous government subsidies to themselves and to West Virginia universities, assigning valuable research money to dirty technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2007 report "The Future of Coal" stated that "there is no standard for measurement, monitoring, and verification of CO2 distribution. Duration of post-injection monitoring is an unresolved issue."

In other words, Big Coal is betting on a pipe dream with an entire ecosystem at stake. Adding CCS to plans for the more than 100 proposed coal-fired power plants on the drawing board would increase operating budgets by 50 percent to 80 percent. And the gasifying and liquifying of coal into syn-gas and diesel would create potential emissions twice as carbon-rich as petroleum-based gasoline or natural gas. If Big Coal gets its way, the U.S. Air Force will cruise the skies on liquid coal fuel — spewing dangerously concentrated CO2 into our fragile atmosphere, and we’ll be building more polluting plants based on false promises from an outlaw industry.

Exacerbating the water crisis

To many observers, the next natural resource wars will be waged over water, not oil or coal. People in the United States are waking up to the reality of a looming water crisis, but the coal industry is still advocating for a technology that is part of the problem, not the solution.

The U.S. Department of Energy stated in December 2006 that the demand for water to produce coal conversion fuels "threaten our limited water supply." Coal conversion — gasification or liquefaction — requires an absurd amount of fresh water. Each new integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) or coal to liquid (CTL) plant will require millions of gallons of fresh water every day. And these new plants will require even more coal.

Big Coal’s proposed plans will require a large increase in coal extraction — at least 15 percent more, though some reports quote as high as a 45 percent increase in coal production would be necessary to fuel "clean coal technology." The surge in demand for coal would be met with a surge in mountaintop-removal coal mining, which means more water pollution. Mountaintop-removal mining and the chemical cleaning of coal also threatens Appalachian headwater streams, which are the drinking water source for the southeastern United States — an area that has endured frightening water shortages this year in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

The coal-to-liquid plants that coal state politicians like Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky are scrambling to site in their states would have one consequence that many observers underestimate or ignore: the increase in production of coal sludge — one of the least known and least regulated toxic wastes in the United States — a direct threat to water supplies.

Coal sludge, laden with heavy metals found in coal and released during extraction, like arsenic, chromium, cadmium and mercury, has been pumped underground in West Virginia for decades, with scant regulatory oversight. The sludge has intercepted underground water tables, from which mountain communities draw their drinking water. Coal sludge also contains carcinogenic chemicals like floculants, which are used to process coal.

In West Virginia, the second-largest coal-producing state in the nation, more than 470 mountaintops have been blown apart, 800 square miles of the most diverse temperate hardwood forest razed and replaced with more than 4,000 valley fills and 675 toxic coal sludge ponds. By 2012, the U.S. government estimates that we will have destroyed 2,500 square miles of pristine Appalachia. Currently there are over 107 trillion gallons of coal slurry stored or permitted to be stored in active West Virginia "impoundments."

The total mechanization of coal extraction epitomized by mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining has buried thousands of miles of vital headwater streams and pumped previously mined lands full of sludge. The coal industry says that it has "elevated" some streams — after they’ve buried them upstream — relocating them and "repurposing" them into chemical spillways called National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) streams.

Coal sludge, the waste by-product of the chemical cleaning of coal in preparation for shipping to market, is initially put into surface ponds, but eventually this chemically concentrated, puddinglike waste leaches into the groundwater. In southern West Virginia, where the largest seams of coal lie, whole communities have been poisoned over years by mining waste that has contaminated their drinking water.

Coal sludge is a disaster waiting to happen, like the 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge that stand behind a 325-foot, leaking, unsound dam of slate, 400 yards from the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, W.Va. Or Brushy Fork in Boone County, W.Va., one of the largest coal sludge dumps in the world, holding back 9 billion gallons of coal waste.

Sludge is also injected underground into the sprawling abandoned mine works of decades past. Coal sludge is turning up in the water in Mingo County, W.Va., where documentation of this practice stretches back for more than 30 years. Residents of Mingo County have suffered catastrophic illness after the toxic sludge breached the local aquifers that feed home wells. More than 650 of these residents have signed on to a massive class-action lawsuit against the offending coal company, Massey Energy.

Pursuing "clean coal technology" will cause an increase in the production of coal and toxic coal waste, which contains dangerous levels of arsenic, barium, cadmium, coper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. In some cases, there are no standards by which to measure contaminants because some have never before been found in drinking water.

While scrubbers on smoke stacks have cleaned coal-fired power plant emissions considerably, the cleaning on the combustion end causes the processing of coal for market to be exponentially dirtier. The coal going to market is cleaner-burning today, with lower sulfur and mercury content, but these dangerous elements are left behind in the coal sludge and in drinking water.

The dirty truth about "clean coal"

The environmental destruction caused by mountaintop-removal coal extraction is just one of many reasons to immediately transition out of coal. A plethora of substantial hurdles for the alternative coal industry include technological uncertainties, billion-dollar budgets, lack of project partners willing to invest in coal, growing concern about carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, uncertainty about future environmental regulations, rising constructions costs and an array of water contamination issues.

But, we’ve been here before. In response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, the U.S. government invested $15 billion in a failed attempt to jump-start the coal-based synthetic fuel industry, including the infamous 1.5 billion syn-fuel plant in Beulah, N.D. In the end, the ’80s era attempt at coal gasification and liquefaction failed miserably because of volatile oil prices bankrupting the nascent industry, leaving taxpayers with a $330 million loss.

The newborn West Virginia Division of Energy — formed to put a better face on coal — would like to institutionalize all possible manifestations of coal production. The state agency says it would like to surround coal extraction sites and the coal-fired power plants with "additional advance coal opportunities" like the "production of ammonia nitrate from coal, as well as nitrates for fertilizer."

These processes require the same copious amounts of water as CTL and IGCC plants. WVDoE’s outline for an energy future goes hand in hand with what mountain people call the declaration of a "National Sacrifice Zone" fueled by a plan to depopulate the coal-rich region of the southern mountains. A similar strategy was publicly declared when the federal government found uranium under Native American lands in the Four Corners area in the 1970s. In the end, the uranium was deemed more important than the land and the people; vast regions of Native American lands were declared "National Sacrifice Zones," and people were forced from their homelands.

Massey Energy’s CEO, Don Blankenship, recently suggested the idea of a far-reaching coal industrial complex upon releasing a statement regarding the purchase of vast parcels of coal lands, increasing Massey’s reserve holding to 100 million tons in northern Appalachia. "This region is becoming increasingly important to the coal and energy industry, and this transaction will enable us to take advantage of the growth in demand for northern Appalachian coal," he said. Massey’s newly acquired coal lands are in West Virginia, across the Ohio River from Meigs County, Ohio, where a notorious cluster of coal-fired power plants are concentrated.

And momentum is building in the region. At a coal-to-liquids conference in Beckley, W.Va., in August this year, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller sent word to the crowd saying, "We need the equivalent of the Apollo and Manhattan Projects that would provide billions in federal funding for research and development so that the best and brightest engineers and scientific minds can tackle carbon capture sequestration and CTL development."

It is time to stop the momentum and break our coal habit. Instead we need an Apollo and Manhattan project to replace coal with solar, wind and geothermal, or our kids will be stuck cleaning up after the dirtiest energy industry. Coal companies are notorious for leaving their mess behind.

via Fred First

Adapting to Peak Oil

John Michael Greer suggests that composted gardens and small farms provide a fallback plan for the industrial farms that are very dependent on petroleum for energy and fertilizer. Do not read this if you think that we can continue to consume energy like we have in the past. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Little Steps That Matter.

What makes these (ethanol and nuclear energy) and similar projects as destructive as they are futile is precisely that they are meant to allow us to continue living our lives in something like their present form. That fantasy, it seems to me, is the single largest obstacle in the path of a reasoned response to the predicament of peak oil. The hard reality we have to face is the fact that the extravagant, energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past cannot be sustained by any amount of bargaining or any number of grand projects. Accept that reality, on the other hand, and redefine the situation in terms of managing a controlled descent from the giddy heights of the late industrial age, and the range of technological options widens out dramatically.

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not.

Instead, it’s a bridge – or part of a bridge – that reaches beyond the end of the industrial age. The industrial model of agriculture, for reasons rooted primarily in current economic and political arrangements, has established a stranglehold on food production in the developed world. Barring drastic political intervention – a new Homestead Act, say, meant to repopulate the abandoned farm country of the Great Plains – that situation is unlikely to change suddenly or soon.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the industrial model of agriculture will actually work well in a postpeak world. Far more likely is a situation in which soaring fossil fuel prices cascade down the food chain, turning industrial farms and their far-flung distribution networks into economic basket cases propped up by government subsidies, sky-high food prices, and trade barriers that keep other options out of the existing marketplace. In such a context, local microfarms and market gardens, and the cooperatives, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture schemes that give them a market outside the existing system, are guaranteed steady and dramatic growth.

Coal is NOT the Solution

Steve Heckeroth at Mother Earth News describes why coal is not a good source of energy. Excerpts below.

Link: Solar is the Solution.

Coal is burned mainly to produce electricity, and coal-fired power plants produce more than half the electricity used in the United States. But burning coal has serious drawbacks. One is that it releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. It also releases heavy metals, such as mercury and sulfur. These toxins that were locked in the Earth’s crust over billions of years are suddenly spewed into the atmosphere and thus degrade our air, water and soil. The exhaust from burning coal contains more pollutants and global warming emissions per unit of energy produced than any other fossil fuel. In addition, the methods used to mine coal are destructive to the land and dangerous for the miners.

Now consider that coal is enormously inefficient from a total energy perspective. It took billions of years of solar energy to form the coal we have today. And while coal is the most abundant fossil resource, the total amount of energy produced by burning all the coal on the planet would only be equivalent to the solar energy that strikes the Earth every six days.

The Future Value of Organic Farming and Farmers Markets

Writer and thinker John Michael Greer describes why organic farming is more than politically correct fad embraced by affluent suburban tree huggers who shop at Whole Foods.

If you believe that the current American lifestyle of energy use is sustainable, then stop reading. But if you are concerned about the future and prosperity of the next generation of Americans, read on.

Excerpts from Mr. Greer’s article are below. Click on the link to read the whole blog post (the comments are very interesting also).

Link: The Archdruid Report: Agriculture: The Price of Transition.

Unlike air and water, the vast majority of the food we eat comes from human activity rather than the free operation of natural cycles, and the human population has gone so far beyond the limits of what surviving natural ecosystems can support that attempting to fall back on wild foods at this point would be a recipe for dieoff and ecological catastrophe. At the same time, most of the world’s population today survives on food produced using fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources such as mineral phosphate and ice age aquifers. As the end of the fossil fuel age approaches, other arrangements have to be made.

This poses a challenge, because nearly every resource currently used in industrial agriculture, from the petroleum that powers tractors and provides raw materials for pesticides, through the natural gas and phosphate rock that go into fertilizer, to the topsoil that underlies the whole process, is being depleted at radically unsustainable rates. Some peak oil theorists, noting this, have worried publicly that the consequences of declining petroleum production will include the collapse of industrial agriculture and worldwide starvation.

…The organic farming revolution …may be the most promising and least often discussed of the factors shaping the future of industrial society. It’s not a small factor, either. In 2005, the most recent year for which I have been able to get data, some four million acres of land completed the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, about a million acres over the previous year’s figure.

Because it uses no chemical fertilizers and no pesticides, organic agriculture is significantly less dependent on fossil fuels than standard agriculture, and yet it produces roughly comparable yields. It has huge ecological benefits – properly done, organic agriculture reverses topsoil loss and steadily improves the fertility of the soil rather than depleting it – but it also translates into a simple economic equation: a farmer can get comparable yields for less cost by growing crops organically, and get higher prices for the results. As the prices of petroleum, natural gas, phosphate rock, and other feedstocks for the agrichemical industry continue to climb, that equation will become even harder to ignore – and in the meantime the infrastructure and knowledge base necessary to manage organic farming on a commercial scale is already solidly in place and continues to expand.

Transportation, at least in North America, is a thornier problem. The railroad system that once connected North American farmland to the rest of the planet, and enabled it to become the world’s breadbasket, was effectively abandoned decades ago, and it’s an open question whether enough of it can be rebuilt in the teeth of catabolic collapse to make any kind of difference. In the meantime, though, another set of adaptive responses is taking shape. All over the US, though it’s especially common on the west coast, local farmers markets have sprung up over the last decade, and much of the produce sold in them comes from small local farms.

In cities where the farmers market movement has set down strong roots – I’m thinking particularly of Seattle, where five weekly farmers markets and the seven-days-a-week Pike Place Market supply local shoppers with produce of every kind – the economics of modern farming have been turned on their heads, and truck farms from 10 to 100 acres located close to the city have become profitable for the first time in many decades. Once again, the infrastructure and knowledge base needed for further expansion is taking shape.

All these transformations and the others that will come after them, though, have their price tag. The central reason why modern industrial agriculture elbowed its competitors out of the way was that, during the heyday of fossil fuel consumption, a farmer could produce more food for less money than ever before in history. The results combined with the transportation revolution of the 20th century to redefine the human food chain from top to bottom. For the first time in history, it became economical to centralize agriculture so drastically that only a very small fraction of food was grown within a thousand miles of the place where it was eaten, and to turn most foodstuffs into processed and packaged commercial products in place of the bulk commodities and garden truck of an earlier era. All of this required immense energy inputs, but at the time nobody worried about those.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, though, the industrial food chain of the late twentieth has become a costly anachronism full of feedback loops that amplify increases in energy costs manyfold. As a result, food prices have soared – up more than 20% on average in the United States over the last year – and will very likely continue to climb in the years to come. As industrial agriculture prices itself out of the market, other ways of farming are moving up to take its place, but each of these exacts its price. Replace diesel oil with biodiesel, and part of your cropland has to go into oilseeds; replace tractors altogether with horses, and part of your cropland has to go into feed; convert more farmland into small farms serving local communities, and economies of scale go away, leading to rising costs. The recent push to pour our food supply into our gas tanks by way of expanded ethanol production doesn’t help either, of course.

All this will make life more challenging. Changes in the agricultural system will ripple upwards through the rest of society, forcing unexpected adjustments in economic sectors and cultural patterns that have nothing obvious to do with agriculture at all.

…Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.

You know you’re a Green-Neck when…

You get excited when you see a hybrid car.

You like the way solar panels look on the roof of a house.

You download music to your music player instead of buying the CD — because it reduces pollution and waste.

You think people who drive Hummers are stupid.

You don’t use bug spray in your home.

You’d rather plant a bush than elect one.

You feel sorry for trees when they get cut down.

You know intuitively than global warming is real and caused by pollution.

You wonder how the people who run Exxon sleep at night.

You’d rather visit a mountain waterfall than a shopping mall.

You know that trout are the "canaries in the coal mine" for water quality.

You’d like to see the OPEC countries run out of money before they run out of oil.

Your mouth doesn’t salivate when you see a deer.

You hunt bears with a camcorder.

You know Cradle To Cradle does NOT involve babies.

You tinker with the power-saving features of your computer.

You invest in green companies even when their track record doesn’t look good.

You are suspicious about Wal-Mart selling organic food.

You don’t scare a snake in your backyard even when you have a shovel in your hands.

You can’t get all the stuff to be recycled into your car when its time to haul it off.

Green-Necks Unite!!!

Copyright © 2007 The Better Information Group, Inc.

The Best Nuclear Power

Bill McDonough, visionary and practical at the same time, comments on nuclear power.

Link: Plenty Magazine – Environmental News and Commentary

From Bill McDonough’s keynote address at Greenbuild, the annual conference of the U.S. Green Building Council, taking place this week in Denver:

Recently I was asked to give a talk about sustainability at the White House to over 40 federal agencies. So I gave my talk and showed these slides, and afterwards I was asked, "Mr. McDonough, what do you think of nuclear power? A lot of environmentalists are now in favor of it because of concerns about global warming." And I said, oh, I like nuclear power. I’m a big fan of fusion. I think we should invest lots of money into nuclear power and consider using it for all our energy needs. And look—we’ve already got the perfect nuclear power plant. It’s 93 million miles away. It’s wireless. The construction costs are zero. Its operable lifetime is infinite. It’s right there. What are we waiting for?

Hog farms as an energy source?

The StarNewsOnline.com (Wilmington, NC) reports that there may be some value to the hog farm waste that can cause significant environmental damage, as I described in a previous post (Why We Should Eat Less Pork). Bottom line: Hog manure can be used to produce methane, but the waste products don’t go away.

Link: Hog farms seen as energy source | StarNewsOnline.com | Star-News | Wilmington, NC

Using available technology, North Carolina’s hog farms could produce enough electricity to serve more than 90,000 homes, according to a new study commissioned by the N.C. Utilities Commission.

Extrapolating from data about the state’s hog industry – the second largest in the nation, after Iowa – and from experience with waste-to-energy experiments, engineers at LaCapra Associates estimated that 93 megawatts of power could reasonably be generated on the state’s swine farms.

The issue is important to eastern North Carolina, which is home to more than 6 million hogs and the vast majority of the state’s large hog farms. Because of concerns over the effect of hog waste on the region’s water resources, lawmakers halted the opening of new hog farms. Under a legal agreement, the state government and the state’s largest pork producers have spent millions seeking a cost-effective solution for hog waste to replace the open-air lagoon systems now in use.

That legal agreement, and the new attention of the utilities commission and the state legislature, might provide the impetus to bring the study’s estimates closer to reality, said Molly Diggins, director of the state branch of the Sierra Club.

Serious engineering and policy challenges remain, said Leonard Bull, an N.C. State University scientist and deputy director of State’s animal waste research center.

"There are two or three technologies which show promise," Bull said. "But the issues about connecting to the electrical grid are difficult. Becoming a power producer is a slow and laborious process."